Book Review: Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Story

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Short books, available only by download, are a recent trend.

Sally Wiener Grotta’s Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Stories was sent to me in this form, which worked well for it. It is also available in paperback and hardcover.

This volume, about a Jewish mixed-race woman raised by her Christian grandparents in a rural area, seems to be intentionally designed as a tool for provoking discussion about race, prejudice, interfaith encounters, the Jewish mourning practice of sitting shiva and saying Kaddish, and dysfunctional families.

As an educator always looking out for high-school-level stories that reveal family diversity, the story also raises important psycho-dynamic issues: that some people do change over time, and how projecting expectations onto others can lead to devastating cruelty.

The violence of the rape and trauma scenes seems quite accurate. Shiva scenes of the Jewish week of mourning after burial reflect the unfortunate and common practice of people giving advice to the primary mourners. Our tradition teaches us to listen to feelings, and not offer fixes. Even so, Kaddish works its magic:

For a few brief moments, I no longer feel like a stranger, but part of something larger, grander than myself. We were brought together by death, but we’re held together by the demands of life. That peace and comfort stays with me even as the circle breaks up.

But I have some issues with the work as a whole:

Continued after the jump.
First, during this quick read I kept hoping that the obvious conclusion would not be the actual one, but the end of the tale is truly inevitable.

Secondly, the main character, who is also the most affected by violence, seems almost wooden compared to rape victims this reviewer has counseled in her roles as a rabbi, and a long-time activist in the field of rape prevention and counseling. Overall, the main character seem to be reporting on her life more than fully experiencing it. The book’s author has written an essay on the malleability of memory — an interesting matter in and of itself.

Third, an aphorism says that between the liberal cities of Philadelphia and Harrisburg lies Appalachia, and the book proves this point. The characters seem caricatured; many of them would readily fit into an episode of Northern Exposure, or the townies of the recent film, Nebraska.

I kept wishing for brief film clips, rather than having to “get the picture” by reading the by-the-book style of writing:

“Hello Judith, don’t suppose you recollect me.”

A woman stands over me, but not too close, as though she’s hesitant to encroach.

About 65, she’s painfully thin, with that strained scrawny appearance of one who’s fought her way through a hard life and survived. Her face is rough and deeply lined; her nose and mouth twisted and papered with small scars. Her dull dark brown hair is streaked with yellowing gray swathes, but tightly groomed, not a strand escaping the bun at her neck. Though decades out of fashion, her flowered dress is starched and spotless…

For some contexts this form of writing can work well, especially for entry-level writing classes, and high school settings, where discussion of the powerful contemporary themes will be of great benefit.  

Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival Kicks Off With “God’s Neighbors”


“God’s Neighbors.”

The 33rd season of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival will kick off tomorrow, November 2, at the Gershman Y, 401 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, with the film God’s Neighbors.

In the film, three young working-class zealots appoint themselves enforcers of the Torah in their neighborhood. The group’s dynamic is challenged when the team’s leader threatens a young woman who defies their rules, yet awakens his desire. The showing will be followed by a Skype conversation with the film’s director, Meni Yaesh.

The Festival, which will feature 18 films in nine different venues, will be concluded November 16. More than half of the showings will be Philadelphia premiers.

Full schedule after the jump.
Saturday, November 2: God’s Neighbors.
Sunday, November 3: Sukkah City.
Sunday, November 3: Rock the Casbah.
Monday, November 4: Hannah Arendt.
Tuesday, November 5: Commie Camp.
Wednesday, November 6: Red Flag.
Thursday, November 7: Koch.
Thursday, November 7: Paris-Manhattan.
Saturday, November 9: Center Piece: The Jewish Cardinal.
Sunday, November 10: An American Tail.
Sunday, November 10: Igor and the Cranes’ Journey.
Sunday, November 10: The Dandelions.
Monday, November 11: Aftermath.
Wednesday, November 13: My Awkward Sexual Adventure.
Thursday, November 14: Orchestra of Exiles.
Thursday, November 14: Upstarts – An Evening of Jewish Shorts.
Saturday, November 16: Bethlehem.

Hollywood Star Joshua Malina Is Still a Mensch


Joshua Malina (left) with Rabbi Aaron Gaber. Photo: Bonnie Squires.

— by Bonnie Squires

Joshua Malina, noted television, screen and stage actor, appeared at Congregation Beth Judah last Sunday. The title of his presentation was “How to Make it in Hollywood and Remain a Mensch.”

Malina, who had attended an orthodox Jewish day school in New York, went on to major in theater at Yale, and then to star in some of television’s greatest shows of the last two decades, including “Sports Night,” and “West Wing.”

Malina got his acting debut in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway production of “A Few Good Men.” While getting his start in show business, he paid his rent with the help of his poker winnings. After establishing himself with minor roles in the films, he landed the role as Annette Benning’s assistant in “The American President.”

Throughout his successful career he has remained a staunch advocate for both Conservative Judaism, and for Jewish culture as a whole. He appeared in the Jewish Federation of North America’s “Live Generously” campaign, and considers his Conservative Judaism a foundational part of his character.  

Because of his background, Malina said he can go to any shul and instantly feel part of the community. He is bothered by the fact that there are so many famous Jews in Hollywood, but so few of them ever go public with support of Israel, as he has done repeatedly. He praised Olympic medalist Allie Raisman for having performed her floor routine in the gymnastics competition to the strains of “Hava Nagilah.”

Malina is very popular on the Hillel and Jewish Federation circuits around the country. He currently stars as David Rosen on the television series, “Scandal.”

They’re Singing Midrash (But Not For Me)

At least there is the music, I tell myself.  Despite all of Christianity’s distortions and extreme misappropriations of Jewish concepts and traditions of mashiach (“messiah) — and we know with what often murderous consequences for Jews and Judaism, there is still (some of) the music inspired by the midrash. For, yes, Virginia, the ‘Story of the Birth of Jesus’ is a kind of midrash — certainly composed in midrashic style, its narrative components selected from the Torah and Nevi’im.
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Intimacy and Virtuosity

When my mother was pregnant with me, on most days, if not every day, she played her LP of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, performed by Arthur Grumiaux and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam.  A genius work of classical music, and a genius performance, thus infused my pre-natal life, and, I am certain, prepared me to want the same constant company of great music in my life.
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Ripeness is All

In the epic catalogue of jazz heroes whose home is Philadelphia are the fantastic names of musicians of singular greatness, who have given the world a vivifying and revivifying legacy of invention, of craft, and of, what poet Hayden Carruth called, “the joy and agony of Improvisation”: John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Clifford Brown, Doc Cheatham, Stan Getz, Billy Holiday, Stanley Clarke, Sonny Fortune, Jaco Pastorius, The Brecker Brothers, Christian McBride, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, James Mtume, Sun Ra, and, and, and…

…and pianist and composer Kenny Barron.
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Swaying But Not Quite Swayed Sway Machine In Concert At NMAJH

The music group The Sway Machine made its Philadelphia debut the evening of September 20, 2012, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, performing a cycle of songs titled “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” which the group describes as “a secret celebration of Rosh HaShanah.” For this Philadelphia performance, The Sway Machine was Jeremiah Lockwood (guitar, vocals, composition/storytelling), John Bollinger (drums), Stuart Bogie (tenor sax), Jordan McLean (trumpet), and Nikhil Yerawadekar (electric bass). Each of these musicians is a prolific performer and collaborator, with each other and with many another group. The group’s ‘sound’, its ideal to which it is attuned and its traditional referential of origin, is a confluence and combination of various, call them, lineages of music: Klezmer, Jewish cantorial music (Jeremiah Lockwood is the grandson of cantor Jacob Konigsberg), the music of Mali guitarist, singer, and composer Ali Farka Toure, to name just these.
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New Opera Aims to ‘Slay’ Intolerance

Slaying the DragonA new opera, Slaying the Dragon, by composer Michael Ching, with libretto by Ellen Frankel, will have its world premiere in Philadelphia at the Prince Music Theater June 7 and 9 during the national Opera America Conference, with additional performances at the Academy of Vocal Arts on June 14, 16, and 17. It will be presented by Center City Opera Theater.

More after the jump.

Based on a true story depicted in the book, Not by the Sword by Kathryn Watterson, Slaying the Dragon is about a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who renounces violence and hatred because of his unlikely friendship with a rabbi and his wife. The opera is a powerful vehicle for confronting contemporary themes of tolerance, the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric and stereotyping, and the possibilities of atonement, forgiveness, and personal redemption. Both men undergo personal transformations and break from the prisons of their dark pasts. We are all too familiar today with the brutal landscape of intolerance: bullying, gay-bashing, terrorism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and flash-mobs. One way to confront and overcome these modern manifestations of intolerance is to take a contemporary and non-traditional approach-through opera, for instance.

Ellen Frankel“This opera is a powerful vehicle for confronting contemporary themes,” says Ellen Frankel, librettist for Slaying the Dragon. “Tolerance, the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric and stereotyping, and the possibilities of atonement and personal redemption.”

Although Slaying the Dragon is librettist Ellen Frankel’s first opera, she has been writing libretti for choral works for the past twelve years, working primarily with Philadelphia composer, Andrea Clearfield. In May 2000, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony premiered Clearfield’s cantata, Women of Valor, which included two pieces by Frankel, “Sarah” and “Hannah.” In 2011, the Women’s Sacred Music Project commissioned Clearfield and Frankel to write a new movement, “Hagar,” for an adapted version of Women of Valor, which was performed in September 2011 at a Philadelphia abbey and synagogue.

In 2005, Philadelphia’s prestigious Mendelssohn Club Choir commissioned Clearfield to write a new oratorio; Frankel wrote the libretto. The resulting work, The Golem Psalms, inspired by the ancient Jewish legend of the Golem, premiered at the University of Pennsylvania in May 2006, performed by the Mendelssohn Club and the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, with Sanford Sylvan as baritone soloist, and has also been performed at Haverford College, Indiana University, and at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center. Frankel and Clearfield have signed agreements with Center City Opera Theater to develop a full-length opera based on the legend of the Golem, as part of CCOT’s Creative Development Projects.

The Five Books of MiriamJPS Illustrated Children's BibleThe Encylopedia of Jewish SymbolsThe Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish LoreDr. Frankel is the author of ten published books, including The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, The Five Books Of Miriam and JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible, which won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. She served for eighteen years as the Editor in Chief and CEO of The Jewish Publication Society, the oldest and only nondenominational, non-profit publisher of Jewish works in English, and was named its first Editor Emerita upon her retirement in 2009.

Michael ChingIn writing the music for Slaying the Dragon, composer Michael Ching counters intolerance through the joy of music, bringing together a range of lively, eclectic, and wide-ranging styles. For his score, Ching drew from a variety of musical genres and sources-Yiddish folk songs, Vietnamese children’s songs, Jewish sacred music, Aryan rock, Broadway, and country-western tunes. Slaying the Dragon is Ching’s third full length opera.

Slaying the Dragon is the latest work to emerge from Center City Opera Theater’s Creative Development Projects, an ongoing series of new opera works that are brought from inception to fully-staged premieres. During the two-year development process, workshops for Slaying the Dragon included a libretto reading in June 2011, music workshops in September 2011 as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Fringe Festival and a second music workshop in January 2012, plus staged workshops in February 2012.

Southern Jewish Memories

— by Hannah Lee

Already 38 years in print, Eli N. Evans’s The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South has garnered high praise by the late Israeli statesman and author, Abba Eban, who wrote of Evans: “the Jews of the South have found their poet laureate.”  Humbly identifying himself as “the grandson of a peddler,” Evans began his lecture at The National Museum of American Jewish History on October 16th by noting that being raised as a Southerner and a Jew were unique experiences that shaped his sense of self and of home.  In describing his boyhood in Durham, North Carolina, he said “I grew up like every other Southern boy– with a bicycle in the neighborhood and football, basketball, and picking honeysuckle in the spring.”
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